6

Talking about the Giving What We Can Pledge

Giving What We Can estimate a pledge as being worth approximately $73,000 in donations to effective charities, and so getting people to take the pledge who wouldn’t have taken it otherwise seems like a highly valuable activity.

This year's GWWC pledge campaign started on Tuesday 29th November and will finish on the 10th of January. Since the campaign started 212 people have taken the pledge, with 171 people taking the pledge in December, the highest number of any month by 42 pledges - see the GWWC dashboard for more details. The main aspects of the campaign have included: publicising the pledge through social media, largely through the campaign's facebook event; writing articles and blog posts about the pledge; local groups publicising the pledge and putting on events; making a video about the pledge; and individual outreach to potentially interested individuals (although only some of the pledges taken during the campaign will be attributable to the campaign itself). A full review of the campaign is yet to be done, but one of the most promising activities appears to be personal outreach, specifically Giving What We Can members messaging their friends and starting conversations with them about the pledge.

According to a quick and informal survey of members of the Pledge Campaign Organisers Facebook Group, 13 people reported messaging their friends (out of 22 that responded) with 167 messages sent in total. Out of those contacted, 17 went on to take the pledge, 17 said they are planning on taking the pledge (but haven’t done it yet) and 41 said they would consider it, according to the reports of the people messaging.

If we ignore both the people who said they would pledge but haven’t yet, and those who are considering it, this gives us around 1 person taking the pledge for every 10 people contacted. Based on talking to people about their experience, contacting 10 people seems to take around 1.5 hours  (with most of this being time spent talking to a few people), leading to around 1 pledge (or $73k) per 1.5 hours spent.

This ratio shouldn’t be taken as a cost-effectiveness estimate of personal messaging. In particular, it doesn’t account for people that still would have taken the pledge without being messaged or still would have taken the pledge only later, and it seems likely that the people who reported their results would have had more success than either those who didn’t report or didn’t contact their friends. Furthermore, a significant amount of the value of people taking the pledge may be very difficult to quantify, for example the benefit of people getting more involved with effective altruism as a result, or the increased likelihood of the pledge becoming much more widespread and changing societal norms around giving.

I do think though that the figure helps give us a rough idea of just how effective messaging can be and it’s also consistent with other data on similar outreach. Giving What We Can previously messaged potentially interested people about the pledge around this time last year, and around 1 in 25 people messaged went on to take the pledge. Even if we assume that people in general will be 10x less effective than the members of the organisation group in messaging their friends, and also that only 1/10 people who took the pledge wouldn’t have done so otherwise, this would still be about 0.01 pledges or $630 per 1.5 hours spent.

If talking to our friends really is this effective, it seems like we should do it more. Many people find talking about the pledge difficult though, often because they worry that it will come across as preachy or self-congratulatory. Despite being worried about this beforehand, I’ve found messaging people about the pledge over the last few weeks to be surprisingly enjoyable. Most people responded to my messages, all the responses were positive, and the ensuing conversations brought me closer to many of the people I talked with. The feedback from others that have been talking to their friends has been similar, which leads me to suspect that the danger of appearing ‘preachy’ is more apparent than real.

On the other hand, there is a danger of overzealous outreach putting people off, though I think this can be avoided in the following ways:

  • Be slightly selective with who you talk to - spamming everyone you know will likely annoy people, and will also be less effective than considered, personal messages.

  • Be aware that some people simply won’t be interested in talking about the pledge, and if that’s the case, it’s better to leave it rather than try to persuade them to talk about it.

  • Be aware that the pledge will be more difficult or less appropriate for some people, for example those who have a smaller or irregular income.

  • Make sure to communicate that taking the pledge is an important decision and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Aim to provide as much information about the pledge which you think might affect their decision, and let them know if you think there are any plausible reasons why they shouldn’t take the pledge.

There’s more advice on how to talk about the pledge on Giving What We Can’s website. The strategy that I’ve found most useful in messaging friends is telling them what the pledge is and my experience with it, asking them if they’d be interested in hearing more, as well as using it as a chance to catch up with people in general. This seems to make it much easier to work out who is genuinely interested, and to not end up bothering the people that aren’t.

Overall, talking about the pledge is a promising way of having a large impact with a small time investment. For most people who have taken the pledge, I think spending a small amount of time contacting 5 or so friends about it would be incredibly valuable. Here’s the link for the Pledge Campaign facebook event and if you want to hear about other people’s experiences with talking about the pledge, join the Pledge Campaign Organisation Group.

Harri Besceli 

I’m currently interning at the Centre for Effective Altruism, and am helping coordinate the Pledge Campaign, though the views expressed here are my own.

Thanks to Alison Woodman, Larissa Hesketh-Rowe, Linchuan Zhang and Amy Labenz for comments, and thanks to Linchuan Zhang, Edward Higson, Alex Barry, Claudia Shi, Erwan Atcheson and many more volunteers for all the hard work on the campaign.

Comments (7)

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 04 January 2017 05:00:48PM *  2 points [-]

If you take the 0.6 pledges per hour figure and the $73K per pledge figure both literally, that implies a value of time of $43.8K per hour.

I personally like thinking of it as pledges per hour so people can attach their own personal figure of value per pledge. Personally, since I expect the people I reach out to have an income of $65K/yr and will pledge 3%-10% for 1-5 years, a Guesstimate model I made suggests a value of a pledge at $6500 (95% interval: $1096 to $17,750) and suggests the value of personal outreach at $3900/hr (95%: $280/hr to $10883/hr). This is still quite high but much lower than $43.8K per hour. In fact, it's roughly equal to how well the OMfCT fundraiser did.

I'd be interested to see how these numbers hold out as more people, including myself, try this.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 04 January 2017 03:36:04AM 1 point [-]

This is really interesting and I wondered about suggesting something like this as quite high value, especially when targeted personally and non-confrontationally to people new to EA. I wondered whether GWWC was doing this and I'm glad that they are and are getting good results.

I'd be curious to know more about how people to message were selected and how the messages were crafted. This seems harder to reproduce among people like myself who have very few EA friends. 10% of messages converting to pledges is incredible, but potentially so incredible as to be suspicious. 0.667 pledges per hour is a very good hourly rate, much higher (though depending on the value of a pledge) than the hourly rates I found via other kinds of fundraising efforts!

Comment author: Linch 04 January 2017 05:36:59AM 6 points [-]

It might be worth doing a pre-registered experiment of people who have never directly talked to non-GWWC members about GWWC before, or at least not in the last 6 months.

Say we get 10 of such people, and they each message 5-20 of their friends. If our initial models are correct (and I agree with you that from the outside view this looks unusually high), we would expect 5-20 new pledges to come out of this.

Do you happen to be somebody in this category? If so, would you be interested in participating in such an experiment?

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 04 January 2017 06:33:32AM 2 points [-]

It might be worth doing a pre-registered experiment of people who have never directly talked to non-GWWC members about GWWC before, or at least not in the last 6 months.

Good idea.

Do you happen to be somebody in this category? If so, would you be interested in participating in such an experiment?

Yes and yes.

Comment author: rohinmshah  (EA Profile) 05 January 2017 12:02:02AM 0 points [-]

from the outside view this looks unusually high

I would have said this a little over a year ago, but I'm less surprised by it now and I do expect it would replicate. I also expect that it becomes less effective as it scales (I expect the people who currently do it are above average at this, due to selection effects), but not by that much.

This is based on running a local EA group for a year and constantly being surprised by how much easier it is to get a pledge than I thought it would be.

Comment author: Ben_Todd 05 January 2017 05:22:52PM 1 point [-]

One factor is that not all the costs are included, so it's not directly comparable to other fundraising ratios. There is lots of low hanging fruit because GWWC has done so much work in the past to get people interested – it only takes a small amount of extra time to push these people over the edge.

If you added in all the costs, then I'd expect to get back to something like GWWC's regular multiplier of $1:100 (or perhaps a little better because most people have a couple of friends they can persuade unusually easily).

This isn't to dispute the basic point: making the effort to go the last mile with all these people is really worthwhile.

Comment author: hbesceli 04 January 2017 12:14:32PM *  1 point [-]

I'd be curious to know more about how people to message were selected

There weren't any strong guidelines in selecting people just encouraging people to talk to their friends. I chose people to message based on a combination of 1) how interested I thought they'd be (either based on previous conversations about EA or my knowledge of their interests) 2) how close we are, and I'd imagine others used similar heuristics.

and how the messages were crafted.

Here's a message I used that I also put up as an example for others, but there was an emphasis on making the messages personal rather than using a stock message, and so I expect that the type of messages that people sent varied quite a bit.

'Hey, last year i took the 'GWWC pledge' - a commitment to donate 10% of my income to the charities I believe are most effective at improving the world. I'd be really interested in hearing what you think about the idea and whether it's something you'd consider - what do you think? And do you fancy hearing a quick spiel about it? Anyway, what are you up to over New Year’s, when am I going to see you next?'

10% of messages converting to pledges is incredible, but potentially so incredible as to be suspicious.

The success that people have with this probably varies a lot. In particular having spoked to the person about effective altruism before made success a lot more likely. I think there was probably a fairly strong self selection effect, with those who have a lot of potentially interested friends being the people that decided to do the messaging and report their successes, and so I don't think the average GWWC member would be as successful (but probably still enough to make it worth doing).

Also the data from messaging friends seems consistent with the 1/25 message to pledge ratio from GWWC's previous attempts at messaging people - I'd expect messaging friends to be higher than this as the personal connection with the person you're talking about the pledge too seems to be quite an important factor.